I’m going to make this as plain as possible:
On January 7, gunmen killed a bunch of media people for being bigoted. And if you think the latter half of that sentence is more important than the first half, you can get your ass out of here, because we have nothing to say to each other. If you think the second half of that sentence is unimportant, you can stay, because you clearly need educating, but at least you aren’t going to open fire on me if I offend you.
Unlike most of the Americans commenting on the Charlie Hebdo shootings (at least, most of the ones I’ve seen), I actually speak French. I read French newspapers and magazines. I was vaguely familiar with Charlie Hebdo on January 6. I understood it to mostly be something like South Park: supposedly offensive to everyone equally, because as satirists that’s their job, but somehow usually only offensive to the people who don’t agree with them. Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! is another fine comparison, if you feel Penn Jillette is as much as an asshole as I do.
Charlie Hebdo, specifically, represented the kind of French “leftist pluralism” which is the French equivalents of Rush Limbaugh wishing we could go back to traditional French values like communism. If you’re at all familiar with French politics, you may recognize this as the mating call of the Front National, France’s chapter of the ugly racist bastard end of Europe’s political parties. This involved racist and bigoted cartoons and covers, most famously the two portraying Muhammed (PBUH): one with the title “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists” where he weeps “it’s hard being loved by jerks…” and one where they changed the name to Sharia Hebdo and Muhammed (PBUH) promised “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.” The weeping Muhammad became a cause célèbre in France, with the courts upholding ‘the ancient French tradition of satire’ on the logic that it attacked Muslim fundamentalists (in a satirical magazine that also attacked Catholic fundamentalists and Americans) rather than Muslims as a whole.
The second one, of course, got the offices firebombed in 2011. Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”) said at the time that the attacks were from “stupid people who don’t understand what Islam is.” There’s an argument to be made of ‘why is this French non-Muslim trying to whitesplain what Islam is?’ But you don’t want to make it here, if you also hold that Islam is at heart a religion of peace, since Charb apparently grasped that far better than his murderers did. This is also where his now-notorious quote “Ça fait sûrement un peu pompeux, mais je préfère mourir debout que vivre à genoux.” (It’s certainly a bit pompous, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.) comes from.
He certainly was a bit pompous, as was the magazine under his editorship. They were intentionally provocative, insulting Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims far more often than conservative Catholics or strident anti-theists. Their readership included the French equivalent of the Tea Party, who are busily working to twist Charlie Hebdo as a symbol for their own ends, much as they twisted Marianne and Ste. Jeanne-d’Arc. They drew caricatures of Muhammed (PBUH) as much as anybody else, knowing full well that this was offensive, provocative, and insulting.
Absolutely none of this justifies the deaths of Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, Philippe Honore, Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Frederic Boisseau, Franck Brinsolaro or Ahmed Merabet.
Absolutely none of this justifies a chilling effect on the French press or the press of other countries out of fear that someone, somewhere, will be offended.
Absolutely none of this justifies retaliation against Muslim communities, or condemnation of the ancient and beautiful Islamic faith, or demanding that “Muslim leaders” somehow prove that they do not “secretly” condone this violence. That’s as absurd as asking the Pope and the Queen of England and your local Quaker meeting to ‘prove’ they don’t condone Westboro Baptist Church opening fire with AK-47s on the South Park animation offices for their portrayals of Christians.
And sure as Hell, absolutely none of this justifies further violence. Despite what LePen’s cronies are trying to do in France and anti-Muslim activists across the world are trying to do in their countries, I do believe l’amour plus fort que la haine, et la paix plus fort que la guerre.
I hear a lot of American friends tut-tutting Charlie Hebdo, because they heard from a friend of a friend on Facebook that Charlie Hebdo ran some pretty provocative covers. Let me risk a straw-man by unpacking some of the assumptions, stated and unstated, I’ve seen underlying these condemnations: That the dead deserve no pity, because they were bigoted (with the one sterling exception of Ahmed Merabet). That American and British warmongering in the Middle East somehow directly leads to the deaths of French cartoonists, much in the way that if you release an object, it will fall to Earth. That Charlie Hebdo’s insults invited retaliation, so it’s nothing to worry about. There are some pretty ugly goddamn assumptions going into this: one, that Charlie Hebdo deserved the attacks of 2011 and 2015 because they were “provocative.” And two, that Muslims apparently just can’t help themselves but retaliate with violence to insult.
In Dune, at one point the Lady Jessica Atreides says “my son displays a general garment, and you claim it is cut to your fit?” Charbonnier never called for the deaths of Muslims, nor (to my knowledge) their expulsion from France. Charlie Hebdo never ‘shouted fire in a crowded theater,’ directly agitating for violence against Muslims. Charlie Hebdo cut a general garment, and you’re claiming it’s cut to Muslim fit. While you’re at it, back up some other fundamentalist bullshit and work from the unstated assumption that men just can’t help themselves when provoked by a woman wearing less than full hijab or your nearest Christian equivalent. I’m sure a feminist argument in favor of this can be constructed if you read enough Andrea Dworkin.
The other argument is equally ridiculous. You might as well line up Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Penn Jillette and Bill Maher in front of a firing squad and save Muslim extremists the time and effort. They’re offensive. They’re insulting. They’re often ignorant. They punch down as often as they punch up.
And they have every fucking right to be, because America, like France, has freedom of speech.
“But this isn’t about freedom of speech!”
You’re telling me that two men shooting up a magazine office to specifically kill editors, journalists, and cartoonists isn’t about free speech? Shit, man, if that ain’t it, what is?
Neil Gaiman penned a beautiful piece in 2008 titled “Why defend freedom of icky speech?” If I may paraphrase, the Law does not mind what you, or me, or anyone finds acceptable. Therefore, if you want the Law to protect your right to free speech, you have to allow it to protect everyone else’s, too. Even people you disagree with. If you consider freedom of speech at all important, you may find yourself defending speech and people you find utterly vile, repugnant, and reprehensible.
Like, say, dying to defend the people who insult your religion, week after week, month after month, year after year. Like Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who responded to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. He somehow found it in his heart to try to protect them, even from other Muslims, when they were being shot. As if they did not deserve to die for the offenses against Islam and the Prophet, as the shooters clearly believed.
Would you rather agree with Ahmed Merabet, or the shooters? If you answered Merabet, you’re going to have to defend icky speech.
“But this can’t be freedom of speech, as no government is involved!”
The French government is charged by all French citizens to defend them from unjust attack. If you hold that the murders of twelve French people because of political cartoons and magazine covers is unjust, then France has failed to preserve their freedom of speech.
And there is a deeper, and more insidious, way to attack free speech than gunfire. Rather than rat-a-tat-tat, it sounds like this:
“Oh, we can’t run that, someone might be offended.”
“Are you sure this is ‘okay’?”
“We really shouldn’t say anything that could rile someone up.”
It’s okay to say this but not that, because someone might be offended. It’s okay to insult this person, but not that one, because you never know. It’s okay to mock Christians, but not Muslims (or religious, but not atheist, or Mitt Romney, but not Barack Obama).
In other words, it was never okay for Charlie Hebdo to have caricatures of Muhammed (PBUH). Not just impolite or offensive, downright wrong. There’s an argument to be made that, despite their posturing, Charb and Charlie Hebdo insulted Muslims and Jews more than Christians or atheists, and they should have done it less. That’s a fair enough debate. But this is the kind of thinking that says Muslims and Jews should never be insulted at all. This is the kind of thinking where free speech ends.
This is an argument I am actually hearing Americans make, on social media and in person. That Charlie Hebdo should not insult certain groups at all. That their speech is icky.
As if that somehow justifies twelve deaths. Or, alternately, as if it justifies silence out of fear of deadly reprisal in a country that ostensibly protects the right to speak as you please.
As if art, and I consider cartoons to be art, was supposed to kneel before political concerns or some authority’s idea of what is ‘polite.’ That’s a whole other essay (tentatively entitled “Yes, I still read Ender’s Game and watch Vicki Christina Barcelona”), but Ray Bradbury summed it up perfectly: “your right to put your fist anywhere ends at the tip of my nose, and your right not to be offended ends at the tip of my typewriter.”
You’ll note I described the two Muhammed (PBUH) covers, but didn’t include them in images. You’ll also note I included the phrase (PBUH) after the name of the Prophet. I have done this because I feel it is polite…but I am not a satirist, and satire is never polite. I don’t demand that my satire be polite, and neither should you. I am a Quaker, not Muslim, and I am perfectly free to depict Muhammed (PBUH) if I so choose. Much like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo.
I hate to think what some of you think of me after all the hells, damns, and kowtowing to those hatemongering racists at Charlie Hebdo and to those gunmurdering extremists teh Muslims. Whatever it is, you’re perfectly within your rights to say so, and I will defend that right to my last breath. Because that means I still have my rights to say hell and damn, and to mourn both Cabu and Ahmed equally. The world is darkened whenever an artist dies, and ennobled when a man dies doing what is just.
These two statements are not contradictory.